By Don Heckman
Bela Bartok was an ethnomusicologist before the term was invented. His early 20th century recordings of Magyar folk music are among the first actual documentation of the Asian origins of Eastern European folk music. Equally important, the material he heard and gathered had a profound impact upon his own compositions, transforming his style from late Romanticism to a unique synthesis of folk elements – especially rhythmically – and the rapidly emerging modernism of the 20th century.
All these factors were on full display Friday night in the UCLA Live presentation of the Takács String Quartet, the Muzsikás folk music ensemble and singer Márta Sebestyén at Royce Hall. The highly imaginative goal of the program was to illustrate — in living, full color fashion — the manner in which Bartok found common cause with Magyar folk music. And the results were as entertaining as they were informative.
The program’s first half began with several traditional pieces from Muzsikás – including a Transylvanian dance and a Transdanubian ugros and fast csardas. Sebestyén made her first appearance singing a flute melody with long flute player Peter Eri, displaying the penetrating, emotionally-edged sound that is at the heart of her singing.
But the centerpiece of the opening section was a shimmering rendering of Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4, a piece whose folk-derived elements provide a constant subtext to confident, sometimes aggressively dissonant modernism. Along with the String Quartet No. 3, it is among his most technically adventurous works, demanding that the players explore every aspect of their instruments, with movement No. 4’s Allegretto Pizzicato a stunning combination of digital virtuosity at the service of an irresistible musical flow.
The second half of the program dealt more directly with Bartok’s folk music associations by actually blending traditional pieces from Muzsikás and Sebestyén with Bartok’s Violin Duos, Sonatina on Themes From Transylvania and Rumanian Folk Dances. The Sonatina and the Violin Duos were introduced with transcriptions of folk music recorded by Bartok.
The synchronicity was fascinating, especially in passages such as the Violin Duo No. 44, in which the Takács Quartet’s violinist Károly Schranz performed with Mihály Sipos, one of Muzsikás’ violinists. Sebestyén’s solo vocal version of bagpipes – intriguing on its own – provided a fascinating contrast to the Takács Quartet’s reading of Bartok’s Bagpipers (from the Sonatina). And the frequent interplay between the ensembles – in which one or another player from the Takács Quartet would suddenly turn up with Muzsicás (and vice versa) was a constant highlight of the set. The final, buoyant individual segments of the Rumanian Folk Dances added a convincing coda to the evening’s compelling account of Bartok’s creative romance with his homeland’s ethnic musical roots. UCLA Live’s productions are always beguiling, but Artistic Director David Sefton outdid himself with this extraordinary program.